Read The Cestus Deception Online

Authors: Steven Barnes

Tags: #Fiction, #SciFi, #Star Wars, #Galactic Republic Era, #Clone Wars

The Cestus Deception

The Cestus Deception

By Steven Barnes

Dedication

For my new son, Jason Kai Due-Barnes.
Welcome to life, sweetheart.

Dramatis Personae
Coruscant Group

Obi-Wan Kenobi;
Jedi Knight (male human)

Kit Fisto;
Jedi Master (male Nautolan)

Doolb Snoil;
barrister (male Vippit of Nal Hutta)

Admiral Arikakon Baraka;
supercruiser commander (male Mon Calamari)

Lido Shan;
technician (humanoid)

Clone Commandos

A-98,
“Nate”; ARC Trooper, recruitment and command

CT-X270,
“Xutoo”; pilot

CT-36/732,
“Sirty”; logistics

CT-44/444,
“Forry”; physical training

CT-12/74,
“Seefor”; communications

Cestians

Trillot;
gang leader (male/female X’Ting)

Fizzik;
broodmate of Trillot (male X’Ting)

Sheeka Tull;
pilot (female human)

Resta Shug Hai;
Desert Wind member (female X’Ting)

Thak Val Zsing;
leader of Desert Wind (male human)

Brother Nicos Fate
(male X’Ting)

Skot OnSon;
Desert Wind member (male human)

Five Families of Cestus Cybernetics

Debbikin;
research (male human)

Lady Por’Ten;
energy (female human)

Kefka;
manufacturing (male humanoid)

Llitishi;
sales and marketing (male Wroonian)

Caiza Quill;
mining (male X’Ting)

Cestus Court

G’Mai Duris;
Regent (female X’Ting)

Shar Shar;
Regent Duris’s assistant (female Zeetsa)

Confederation

Count Dooku;
leader of the Confederacy of Independent Systems (male human)

Commander Asajj Ventress;
Commander of the Separatist Army (female humanoid)

Volume 531 Number 46
H
OLO
N
ET
N
EWS

13:3.7

Baktoid Closes Down Five More Plants

TERMIN, METALORN
—In a statement issued to shareholders, Baktoid Armor Workshop confirmed that it will close down five more plants in the Inner Rim and Colonies as a direct result of Republic regulations that have hindered its battle droid program.

Baktoid plants on Foundry, Ord Cestus, Telti, Balmorra, and Ord Lithone will close by month’s end. An estimated 12.5 million employees will be laid off as a result.

Legislation passed by the Senate eight years ago forced the disbanding of the Trade Federation’s security forces, the largest single consumer of Baktoid’s combat automata and vehicles. Further licensing restrictions on the sale of battle droids made the purchase of such hardware prohibitively expensive for most of Baktoid’s clientele…

Chapter One

For half a millennium Coruscant had glittered, a golden-towered centerpiece to the Republic’s galactic crown. Its bridges and arched solaria harked back to ages past, when no leader’s words seemed too grand, no skyscraper too spectacular, and titanic civic sprawls boldly proclaimed the rational mind’s conquest of the cosmos.

With the coming of the Clone Wars, some believed such glorious days were past. Whether the news holos spoke of victory or defeat, it was all too easy to imagine flaming ships spiraling to their doom beneath distant skies, the clash of vast armies, the death of uncounted and uncountable dreams. It was almost impossible not to wonder if one day war’s ravening maw might not envelop this, the Republic’s jeweled locus. This was a time when the word
city
symbolized not achievement, but vulnerability. Not haven, but havoc.

But despite those fears, Coruscant’s billions of citizens kept faith and continued about their myriad lives. A flock of hook-beaked thrantcills flew in perfect diamond formation through Coruscant’s placid, pale blue sky. For a hundred thousand standard years they had winged south for the winter, and might for yet another. Their flat black eyes had watched civilization force Coruscant’s animal life into inexorable retreat. The planet’s former masters now scavenged in her duracrete canyons, their natural habitats replaced with artificial marshes and permacrete forests. This, others argued, was a time of marvels and marvelous beings from a hundred thousand different worlds. This was a time for optimism, for dreams, and for unbridled ambition.

A time of opportunity, for those with vision to see.

The red-and-white disk of a two-passenger
Limulus
-class transport sliced through Coruscant’s cloud-mantle. In the morning sun it glittered like a sliver of silvered ice. Spiral-dancing to inaudible music, it had detached its hyperdrive ring in orbit, slipping through wispy clouds to land with a
shush
as gentle as a kiss. Its smooth, glassy side rippled. A rectangular outline appeared and then slid up. A tall, bearded man wrapped in a brown robe stepped into the doorway and hopped down, followed by a second, clean-shaven passenger.

The bearded man’s name was Obi-Wan Kenobi. For more years than he cared to count, Obi-Wan had been one of the most renowned Jedi Knights in the entire Republic. The second, a startlingly intense younger man with fine brown hair, was named Anakin Skywalker. Although not yet a full Jedi Knight, he was already famed as one of the galaxy’s most powerful warriors.

For thirty-six hours the two had juggled flying and navigational duties, using their Jedi skills to hold their needs for sleep and sustenance to a minimum. Obi-Wan was tired, irritable, famished, and felt as if someone had poured sand into his joints. Anakin, he noticed, seemed fresh and ready for action.

The recuperative powers of youth,
Obi-Wan thought ruefully.

Only an emergency directive from Supreme Chancellor Palpatine himself could have summoned the two from their assignment on Forscan VI.

“Well, Master,” Anakin said. “I suppose this is where we part company.”

“I’m not certain what this is about,” the older man replied, “but your time will be well spent studying at the Temple.”

Obi-Wan and Anakin continued down the skywalk. Far beneath them the city streets buzzed with traffic, the walk-ways and ground-level construction occasionally interrupted by wisps of cloud or stray thrantcills. The web of streets and bridges behind and below them was dazzling, but Obi-Wan noticed the beauty little more than he had the height, the fatigue, or the hunger. At the moment, his mind was occupied by other, more urgent concerns.

As if his Padawan could read his thoughts, Anakin spoke. “I hope you’re not still annoyed with me, Master.”

There it was, another reference to Anakin’s rash actions on Forscan VI. Forscan VI was a colony planet at the edge of the Cron drift, currently unaffiliated with either Republic or Confederacy. Elite Separatist infiltration agents had set up a training camp on Forscan, their “exercises” playing havoc with the settlers. The most delicate aspect of the counter-operation was repelling those agents without ever letting the colonists know that outsiders had assisted them. Tricky. Dangerous.

“No,” Obi-Wan said. “We contained the situation. My approach is more… measured. But you displayed your usual initiative. You weren’t disobeying a direct order, so… we’ll mark it down to creative problem solving, and leave it at that.”

Anakin breathed a sigh of relief. Powerful bonds of love and mutual respect connected the two men, but in times past Anakin’s impulsiveness had tested those bonds sorely. Still, there was little doubt that the Padawan would receive Obi-Wan’s highest recommendations. Years of observation had forced Obi-Wan to grant that Anakin’s seeming impetuosity was in fact a deep and profound understanding of superior skills.

“You were right,” Anakin said, as if Obi-Wan’s mild answer gave him permission to admit his own errors. “Those mountains
were
impassable. Confederacy reinforcements would have bogged down in the ice storm, but I couldn’t take the chance. There were too many lives at stake.”

“It takes maturity to admit an error,” Obi-Wan said. “I think we can keep these thoughts between us. My report will reflect admiration for your initiative.”

The two comrades faced, and gripped each other’s forearms. Obi-Wan had no children, and likely never would. But the unity of Padawan and Master was as deep as any parent–child bond, and in some ways deeper still. “Good luck,” Anakin said. “Give my regards to Chancellor Palpatine.”

A hovercar slid in next to the walkway, and Anakin hopped aboard, disappearing into the sky traffic without a backward glance.

Obi-Wan shook his head. The boy would be fine.
Had
to be fine. If a Jedi as gifted as Anakin could not rise above youthful hubris, what hope was there for the rest of them?

But meanwhile there was a more immediate matter to consider. Why exactly had he been called back to Coruscant? Certainly it must be an emergency, but what
kind
of emergency…?

The appointed meeting place was the T’Chuk sporting arena, a tiered shell with seating for half a million thronging spectators. Here chin-bret, Coruscant’s most popular spectator sport, was played before hundreds of thousands of cheering fans. Today, however, no expert chin-bretier leapt in graceful arcs across the sand; no pikers vaulted about returning serves. No cerulean-vested goalkeepers veered like mad demicots, hoisting their team’s torch aloft. Today the vast stadium was empty, cleared and sequestered, hosting a very different sort of gathering.

As he emerged from the echoing length of pedestrian tunnel, Obi-Wan scanned the tiered stands. Most of the rows were as empty as a Tatooine desertscape, but a few dozen witnesses were gathered in the box-seat section. He recognized a scattering of high-level elected officials, some important but ordinarily reclusive bureaucrats, a few people from the technical branches, and even some clone troopers. Instinct and experience suggested that this was a war council.

Over time the Clone Wars’ initial chaos had settled into a tidal rhythm; loyalties declared, alliances formed. The galaxy was too vast for war to touch all its myriad shores, but at any given time battles raged on a hundred different worlds. While that number represented an insignificant fraction of the billions of star systems swirling about the galaxy, due to longstanding alliances and partnerships, what happened to millions of living beings had the potential to affect trillions.

Already kingdoms, nations, and families had been ravaged by the wars. As the numbers grew and weapons inevitably became more and more powerful, devastation might well spiral out of control, offsetting the countless eons of struggle that had finally birthed a galaxywide union. The labor of a thousand generations, vanished?

Never!

Lines had been drawn: Separatists on the one side, and the Republic on the other. For Obi-Wan as well as many others, that line was drawn with his own life’s blood. The Republic would stand, or Obi-Wan and every Jedi who had ever strode the Temple’s halls would fall. It was a simple equation.

And in simplicity there was both clarity and strength.

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